August can be a slow month at the box office, but don’t tell that to “Straight Outta Compton.” Since its release three weeks ago, the film about the rise of N.W.A has collected a whopping $134.1 million in the U.S. and Canada, making it the highest-grossing musical biopic ever. It also posted the biggest August opening ever for an R-rated film, debuting with $60.2 million.
The film, co-financed by Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures for about $28 million, follows N.W.A from its scrappy beginnings in the mid-'80s to its commercial and creative success. Initially, many labeled the movie the surprise hit of the summer, but others say the film’s success is actually a no-brainer. Here are five reasons why:
1. N.W.A brought a built-in fan following.
Though most of the cast is relatively unknown, the characters they played have had commercial success for years. Fans of N.W.A showed up en masse at the film’s Los Angeles premiere to catch glimpses of the original members and the fresh-faced actors who play them on the big screen, including O’Shea Jackson Jr. (as Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (as Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (as Eazy-E), Neil Brown Jr. (as DJ Yella) and Aldis Hodge (as MC Ren).
“The film follows the evolution of hip hop culture, and people are taking advantage of the opportunity to see that story on the big screen,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of race and culture at USC. “I think the rapid success of the film speaks to the sort of fan base that made hip-hop what it is today and perhaps younger fans who have come along later but who have an appreciation for the history of the culture.”
2. The film lived up to the hype.
Moviegoers had an overwhelmingly positive response toward the film, giving it an average A grade, according to audience polling firm CinemaScore. The film also notched a 90% positive rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
The L.A. Times review noted that the film starts strongly but runs “a meandering 2 hours and 22 minutes” and is “all over the map." The New York Times noted said the film “sidesteps the raw, visceral impact of the words and music that distinguished the group, winning it fans and foes alike.”
The film played well overseas too, scoring big with No. 1 openings in Britain, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Iceland.
3. Universal’s marketing campaign worked.
The successful marketing campaign began in February at the Grammy Awards with a promotional spot featuring Dre and Cube revisiting Compton.
The studio also had a strong social media push on Facebook, where users could take their photos and replicate the famous “Straight Outta Compton” logo, but with “Compton” replaced by wherever they are from.
“It takes lot of work and creativity to find the right note that draws most people in to see your movie," Nicholas Carpou, Universal’s head of domestic distribution, told The Times last week. “I don’t believe it’s magic. I think it’s great timing and having the right film there and promoting it properly and incentivizing that audience.... And then the film speaks for itself.”
4. Interest in musical biopics endures.
Music biopics can be hard to pull off. Last year, Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys,” which dramatized the rise of the Four Seasons and followed a highly successful Broadway show, failed to draw fans to movie theaters. It debuted with just $13.3 million in ticket sales. The Warner Bros. release went on to make about $47 million domestically, less than what “Straight Outta Compton” made in its first weekend.
Still, the craving from audiences still exists. In June, Roadside Attractions released “Love & Mercy,” based on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Since then, the film has collected a solid $12.4 million in limited theatrical release.
“Straight Outta Compton,” Boyd said, demonstrates “not so much the success of a black film but of a hip-hop film.”
5. The strategic August release date helped.
Weak competition in August can help a film break out of the box office pack. This weekend, holdovers such as “Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation” and “Ant-Man” stayed in the top 10. Even “Jurassic World,” which came out June 12, surged 230% in ticket sales this weekend, jumping back up to the No. 9 spot at the box office.
A lack of new offerings helped “Straight Outta Compton,” but so did the fact that the film connected to different audiences, not just the so-called “urban” demographic. According to Universal, during its opening weekend, about 51% of ticket buyers were younger than 30, and 46% were black. An estimated 52% of the audience was female. Although nine of the top 10 grossing theaters were in Southern California, the No. 1 theater for the film was in Atlanta.
“We are out there with great hopes every day and we are pleasantly surprised by the results,” Carpou said. “I think in this environment in the middle of August, it became even more noteworthy because it wasn’t a default movie to go see. It was a reason to go to the movies.”
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